In the morning hours of Saturday September 11, 2021 around 0558 hrs IST, the area around Pipalkoti and Joshimath in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand experienced violent ground shaking. Traumatised by the tremor and suspecting damage, people came out of their houses and remained outdoors for quite some time, apprehending a bigger one to follow.
As is expected, early morning interactions after experiencing ground shaking revolved around earthquake vulnerability, and safety measures. Elderly narrated their experiences of Chamoli Earthquake of March 29, 1999. Some who had attended a workshop organized recently by DDMA at the Tehsil headquarter tried to decipher the magnitude of the earthquake based on the intensity of shocks felt by them. Others tried to guess the location of the epicenter. Everyone seemed concerned over seismic vulnerability of the region, and reckless construction going on unabated in their proximity. Some even advocated earthquake safe construction to be made mandatory.
With no damage in their surroundings many suspected the epicenter to be somewhere else, and enquired regarding safety of their relatives, friends and acquaintances in the surrounding areas.
Those who had installed the Uttarakhand Bhookamp Alert application of Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority (USDMA) that was launched with much fanfare on August 4, 2021 by the Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami were busy ridiculing the application – it provided no warning as was promised in the advertisements circulated.
To express their discontent over the Sarkari App, some went to the extent of uninstalling it. Some even posted messages condemning the App on social media – being let down by the App, App having been useless, and yet another example of waste of money by Sarkari officers.
And this has not been the first such instance – this earthquake reminded people of not receiving any warning previously as well – for magnitude 3.8 earthquake on August 10, 2021.
Social media was soon overwhelmed with messages ridiculing the Sarkari App.
Logic of the officials
On being contacted, the ones at State Emergency Operations Centre (SEOC) in Uttarakhand Secretariat, Dehradun could not comment anything on earthquake alert not being issued. The SEOC was however aware of the earthquake, and readily told the whereabouts of the epicenter (30.4o N, 79.3o E) together with magnitude (4.7 on Richter Scale), time (05:58:31), and depth (5.0 km).
On being contacted Rahul Jugran of USDMA refrained from commenting on EEW system and warning lapse, and said that, “The mandate of SEOC that operates on 24X7 basis round the year is to gather incident information, particularly from the affected districts and provide it to all concerned authorities and also to the media.”
The ones managing the application however had their reasons for alert not being issued.
Prof. Kamal of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) who is the Principal Investigator of the USDMA supported project, and responsible for managing the application and the seismic sensor array installed across Uttarakhand said, “The threshold for issuing warnings has been set at 5.5 on Richter Scale, and therefore warnings are not issued for earthquakes of lesser magnitude. Information regarding the earthquake is however provided through notification.”
Dr. Piyoosh Rautela of USDMA agreed with Prof. Kamal and added, “Lesser magnitude earthquakes are not expected to cause damage, and therefore it has been decided to keep the threshold for issuing warnings at 5.5 on Richter Scale, so as to ensure that the masses get alerts only for damaging earthquakes.”
“It was a shallow focus earthquake, and therefore seismic intensity was relatively high, particularly in the areas around the epicentre.”, was the explanation of Dr. Rautela for panic amongst the masses.
Prof. Kamal had one more reason for not issuing warnings for low magnitude earthquakes. “Repeated warnings without there being real impact would make masses casual, and they would stop paying attention towards these.”
“State does not wish to create panic amongst the masses and therefore it has been decided to issue warnings for earthquakes with damage causing potential alone – more than 5.5 on Richter Scale.” said Dr. Rautela.
The arguments put forth by the officials could hold good for IIT-like environment, and for people who understand earthquake mechanism, and steep rise in its damage causing potential with increase of magnitude.
But then, what about the masses?
How many can really comprehend that an earthquake of magnitude 5.5, for which they are to receive an alert, is to release 16 times energy compared to an earthquake of magnitude 4.7 that they experienced in the morning hours of September 11, 2021?
Moreover, would one dismiss the App after experiencing ground shaking but not receiving warning on her mobile, or would she check the magnitude and then reassure herself that she was actually not to receive the warning for this incidence?
As regards the panic – the authorities seem to be under some kind of misconception.
In the present times of information boom and internet proliferation there can be no bigger misconception than to expect masses to remain unaware of the earthquake, if they are not alerted through the Bhookamp App.
If the authorities apprehend mass panic by warning on Bhookap App what about getting the same information equally promptly through social media or news channels?
In any case, masses are going to get the earthquake information – from social media or the news.
And what about those in the proximity of the epicenter?
Warning on Bhookamp Alert or no warning, they are going to feel it.
In such a scenario many would certainly be sharing their experience of the Bhookamp App on social media as also with friends and relatives. This word of mouth publicity of the application would augment popularity of the application without any additional investment on advertisements.
Masses would at the same time reminded of their earthquake vulnerability by frequent warnings, and this would raise awareness levels of the masses and ensure compliance of seismic safety norms.
By not issuing warnings the authorities are missing all this.
The way forward
Despite having witnessed magnitude 6.8 Uttarkashi Earthquake of October 20, 1991, and magnitude 6.6 Chamoli Earthquake of March 29, 1999 Uttarakhand Himalaya has not witnessed a major earthquake since magnitude 7.5 Garhwal Earthquake of September 1, 1803, and is recognized as falling in Seismic Gap of magnitude 7.8 Kangara Earthquake of April 4, 1905 and magnitude 8.0 Bihar – Nepal Earthquake of January 15, 1934.
Uttarakhand Himalaya thus faces grave threat of a major devastating earthquake in near future which is sure to have adverse impact on the densely populated western Uttar Pradesh and National Capital Region (NCR) as well.
So big earthquake in near future is a harsh reality for the region.
In such a situation these so called false alerts would remind the masses that the region is seismically active, and they are vulnerable to earthquakes. This in turn would bring forth awareness amongst the masses on earthquake safety. This regular reminder would thus result in people voluntarily adopting earthquake safety measures.
Issuing warning only for devastating earthquakes clearly implies that such a warning would be issued once in several years. It is unlikely if the people would be able to comprehend such a warning, and act appropriately. On the contarary this could result in confusion.
By not issuing warnings the authorities are thus missing opportunity provided by nature to popularize the App, bring forth awareness, and ensure earthquake resilience.
So it is expected that the authorities at USDMA and IIT Roorkee decide to lower the warning threshold, and ensure that the masses get to know of any earthquake in the region through Uttarakhand Bhookamp Alert App rather than from social media and news.
Moreover the authorities need to realize that there is not going to be effective warning lead time for most portion of the state located in the Higher Himalayan region that is likely to host the devastating earthquake. Though not having direct practical utility the EEW system could still be useful for this region as it could help in bringing forth seismic resilience.
So even though without lead time a warning on the Bhookamp App should invariably accompany earthquake shaking experienced by the masses. This would remind the masses what they should do after getting the warning, and with the popularisation of the App some would certainly start to practice “Drop, Cover and Hold” with the next warning beep on their mobiles.
Such mock exercises orchestrated by nature would certainly bring forth seismic resilience in the region and ensure mitigation of losses.